Their quote was about finding ways to get through life.
One: “Don’t be afraid of anyone. Now, can you imagine living your life afraid of no one?”
Two: “Get a really good bullshit detector.”
Three: “Three is be really, really tender.”
“And with those three things” – Laurie said – “you don’t need anything else.”
In the full wide range that stretches from street hobos to rich presidents and from Ivy-league dropouts to post-celebrity rehabs, there is a common thread: life is ripe with conflict.
Sure, conflict is what made humans sharper, problem solvers until the last beat. Storytellers know that ultimately conflict alone can float identity through a sea of half-truths, up, up to the surface where the sun plays catch with flying fish. However important our culture of conflict may be, the search for less human pain, suffering, and crisis may also be a story to pursue. A peaceful target to shoot for.
In dramatic movies, the ending may be, in terms of plot, happy or unhappy. In either case, if the story works, the viewer is rewarded with insights into the depths of human life.
The ancient Greeks attended Tragedies more than school, feasting on pop-corn-less morality with cathartic heroes like Oedipus (an unknowing motherfucker) or universal strategists like Ulysses, king of the surprise climax.
So, what can we learn about “making our life better” by watching a film story? It is true that caped Super-heroes are our cultural diet now, just as Commedia dell’Arte theatre masks were dominant wanderers from town to town for four centuries.
It’s all about relationships, stupid.
A film I would watch again is one that leads to my relationship with the story. Titanic was a lesson in teen-age blockbuster making, who would have thought it? Multiple viewings create a relationship, characters become familiar: it’s the key to the new TV series mania.
Note for debate: Characters are not people, but they’re close enough to pretend. Characters stand in a story because the plot says so, and the writer cast them for a role. No script? No character. They look like people, however. Or should.
This is not the case in real life where life may be scripted but in all likelihood is not very good. Determinists saw destiny play a bigger part than individuals. In the west we famously trust individual agency and will to drive success and failure.
You want to be the big boss man? Slay the dragons. Dominate your universe and plunge forward. Action films seem equivalent to playing Mozart with only Major chords. (Male chords, duh)
I have a preference for the Minor Key in film. Movies that don’t try and impress only with underlined cinematic cartwheeling. I have the same bias meeting people at parties.
If a film reveals a personal insight, I am Up. If there is a label that explains everything or indicates next to each action, I am turned off. I follow film-makers that make movies that matter, even a little.
As a producer of youth-cinema, I see film conflict not as a medieval head-to-head battle to release adrenaline, but a personal texture, an inside chess game of question marks: where to go? what to do? How? Who with? Well told conflict can be hesitation pure and simple. Or an identity short-circuit. Or lack of clarity, loss of vision. How to take direct action choices, then? Voting can be Hamletic too, in hard times.
Even without a simple top-down final duel on a skyscraper, a film can lead to a character’s foggy melting point, the quiet intersection of dramatic need, desire and urgency in search of identity.
Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed are not film characters.
In the script of life rewritten, I would try reducing, not adding, conflict to stories. Better conflict, of course, the one worth fighting for without fists and watching with senses aloft. As James Joyce said, the cinema is a “screen of consciousness”.
Luckily I am not afraid of fear, I can smell bullshit from outside the playground, and I still want to hear my kids tell me I was kind. That’s a step towards a better now, even for a callous storyteller like me.
There is already enough conflict to go around in the world.
Danny Alegi is a filmmaker, story development coach and speaker. Read more of Danny’s blogs at ‘Movies Without Cameras‘.
The puzzle of super-motivation: a guest post by Ray Grewal
Faster than a speeding bullet! Why Superman does what he does…
“What is Superman’s motivation?”
This question pops up now and again in creative writing workshops because knowing what the main character is striving to achieve and why is the backbone of any good story. Superman presents a conundrum: why does this superhuman alien while away his days trying to fix our mess? Two answers are always given to this question:
These answers are both wrong.
The crime genre aficionados amongst you know that every detective from Wilkie Collins’Sergeant Cuff in ‘Moonstone’ to Sally Wainwright’s Catherine Cawood in ‘Happy Valley’ is fighting for truth and justice (let’s assume ‘the American way’ is to endorse robust democracy and the rule of law so is synonymous with the first two). Whether they do it with a razor sharp intellect like Sherlock Holmes or a dogged tenacity like Columbo they are all trying to catch the bad guys to see them punished for their crimes – just like Superman. But, and you don’t need to be an aficionado to know this, at some point in any good detective story the crime will become personal. Jack Reacher, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade will all, at some point, stake their reputations, their relationships and even their lives on getting to the truth and they’ll do it for hubris, love and occasionally the greater good – but whatever their reason they’ll have a stake in the outcome.
Which is where, we assume, Lois Lane enters the fray.
In his infamous, unproduced, screenplay ‘Superman Lives’ Kevin Smith sums up Superman’s take on their relationship like this: “Yes, I do it all for the multitude. But when I save lives, or fight for the weak, I’m saving one life, fighting for one person – again, and again, and again. It’s her, don’t you see? She represents all of them – their hopes, their fragility, their passion. And if ever I feel like no matter how much I do, it’s not enough, I think of Lois. And then I’m off, faster than a speeding bullet…”
So really the two answers are one: Superman’s motivation is to fight for truth, justice and the American way because of Lois Lane. But there’s an unfulfilling myopia to this answer that’s borderline racist: we’re an indistinguishable mass to Superman. And it begs the question: if Superman had never met Lois Lane and he came across a child standing in the street with a car hurtling towards it would he let the child die? Of course he wouldn’t – he’s Superman.
In my opinion the puzzle as to what is Superman’s motivation has only been successfully solved once: in 1978 in a story by Mario Puzo, in a screenplay re-written by Tom Mankiewicz, in a film directed by Richard Donner.
Standing over Jonathan Kent’s grave, his arm around his mother, the rolling Kansas countryside bathed in afternoon sunlight around them, a young Clark Kent utters these words:“All of those things I can do, all those powers and I couldn’t even save him.” From that moment until the end of the film his motivation is clear and simple: on the day he first meets Lois he stops a bullet that would have killed her, he catches her when she falls out of a helicopter, he saves Air Force One when an engine is destroyed by lightening, he stops armed robbers and he catches a thief who falls off a building. Superman is doing for others what he couldn’t do for his father: he is stopping death.
But it isn’t enough to cheat death; he must defeat death and this is where Lex Luther comes in. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the antagonist of a story must be the equal to or stronger than the protagonist. Lex Luther is not the antagonist because he will never be stronger than Superman…but he can align himself with something that is: before we know anything about Lex’s fiendish scheme we learn that it involves killing a lot of people – death is coming, in a big way. As the story develops Lex (brilliantly played by Gene Hackman) taunts Superman that no matter how hard he tries he will not save everyone. And, it transpires, Lex is right: alone on a dirt road, Lois’ car gets wedged into a crevice and she is buried alive. Death has won. In a moment of pure rage, Superman defies his father, Jor-El’s edict that he should never interfere with human history and he turns back time. He brings Lois Lane back from the dead.
So the answer to the question what is Superman’s motivation?
Superman’s motivation is to defeat the only force in the universe that is stronger than he is: death.
In 1978 Superman won round one. I’m still waiting for round two.
(this post is about the cinematic interpretations of Superman and does not refer to the comics or the television series ‘Lois and Clark’ and ‘Smallville’ although comments and thoughts about these are welcome.)
THIS WAS THE FIRST OF A SRIES OF GUEST POSTS BY Ray Grewal
Visiting lecturer in screenwriting at Regent’s University, London.
Freelance writer, editor, reader and tutor working for companies including the BBC, Creative England, the Writers’ Workshop.
Ray blogs regularly at SCRIPTPLAY
Telling a story well as a film is not easy. And yet more and more people want to try and be storytellers. Some feel the need to express the personal experience of scars: pain, adventure, life detours, wonder, feelings. Others do it for work.
Pull Back to Reveal: Story is the mega-trend, it is everybody’s business.
We are defined by our vision, our will and the hard choices we need to make in the face of conflict. When a person doesn’t stop trying, their vulnerability is exposed. Sooner or later meaningful connections develop, and story grows in the shared space of relationships.
To me a story well told, and worth telling, is, simple and smart. By “smart ” I mean a story with a cinematic DNA, with the energy to connect the feeble light of our fragile optimism with the dark shadows of human nature.
At Cinemahead many projects are DIY style, home-made or personal. Are you are on a storytelling path? What are you working on? Where do you plan to go with it?
Let it grow.
published in the collective book: MAGIC MOMENTS
by Broby Grafiska – Film I Värmland, 2014
I struggled as a kid with the systematic murder of butterflies in the name of the study and preservation of their magical, ephemeral beauty. Maybe an idea is like a butterfly that we find alive in flight, perfect as is. We humans are curious creatures, we live for ideas, we want to feed on rapture and wonder. We are driven to observe, hold, capture, even devour an idea. It’s a process we do unconsciously, like breathing, I suspect.But then, as in any story, once we feel an idea… “what happens next?”
For me an idea is like lighting a match in the dark, IT makes all the difference. IT reveals a little more. IT creates shadows and in betweens. Before I “get IT” or explain IT or identify IT, I can recognise one feeling: an idea can transform the unfamiliar into a cell of awareness without having a name or a purpose yet. Just a bolt of energy that reshuffles what we knew before, like a new kid on the block has the power to change an entire neighborhood.
For the most part, my ideas remain private, unexplained. Instinct is wordless, right? Why explain ideas to yourself? Sequences of verbal translation are a social tool of communication. My guess is when you feel an idea, you do what a plant does thru photosynthesis, changing light into nutriment. Perhaps our ideas are inputs, breaths to exhale later in new form. In between the in and out, is the mysterious, fascinating creative adventure of “process”, the middle of things, the Now. The East sits on the path of “what’s happening now” in a contemplative, deeper sense. The West keeps trucking’ on the highway of what happens next: desire, competition and material accomplishment. Action is inevitably a story structure: beginning, end, middle. The middle comes last because, a middle is a middle only if it is followed by an end.
Personally, I am interested in one specific kind of idea: the cinematic idea. A cinematic idea moves and changes thru time. It possesses- from its beginning – the energy and DNA of a film, and nothing else. A cinematic idea carries visual power and storytelling potential, emotional dynamics. A cinematic idea wants to be a film, not a statue, a painting, or a building. Trying to freeze and label a cinematic idea to me is like sticking a pin into that butterfly, to be able to place it – dead forever – under a magnifying glass. But I am no scientist or biologist, I am interested in stories ion motion, movies, personal films across genres and media. The movies I am most interested in are not the ones playing on Netflix, but those that have not been made yet. I started working with youth cinema for this reason: young and amateur creatives can fly if you just let them without dissecting them with how-tos and to-dos. One thing is fly, and another is to label, report and study.
James Joyce once said that his final opus “Finnegan’s Wake” – whose verbal flux and storytelling deconstruction were so unprecedented as to frustrate and fascinate readers for ever – said his inspiration for the weaving structure of the book came – in part – from the new art of cinema. [Read the “Introduction to Metaphysics” by Henri Bergson, there is a cinematic idea]
Ideas, in fluid narrative process, can become “stream of consciousness”, the art of flow. Many writers wait for flow to flood their pages with unstoppable, final sentences. Good ideas seem to shine with a promise: there will be “less pain” when a script “writes itself”. Bbut in story development good ideas are necessary but not sufficient. A writer can’t just admire a new magic moment of insight, s/he must dance with IT.
A magic moment “pops up” and we look at it, then we think we must save it, hold on to it, never let it go. How do we do that? Some scribble or tap notes. Some “take pictures” to stake a placeholder claim on the world. We all seem to want to trap, even arrest our ides as images and words, and then imprison them in our pocket digital devices. We seem to give so much value to our “captured images” and their potential value as idea reminders. But I know there is a way to do the reverse, to release the source of an idea back into the wild, to set IT free. I call it the Cinemahead process.
Carrying captured images and sounds can fill the hard-drive space in our camera and brain. This cuts down our play-space and playing with ideas (the process, the now) is the most juicy part of the game. So I try and leave a new idea exactly where I found it. Instead of capturing a shot of a tree as a memory, I play with it, then I put it back: I leave it there. Next time you do, look at how “your” idea returns where you found it. rock-n-roll! The next time, your the idea will be waiting for you there, exactly where you left it. Nobody will steal your ideas in the open. Trusting an idea into the common space can be not sonly exhilaratingly free, but even contagious. Imagine others as they may run into your ideas and you into theirs. Imagine a creative commons of shared ideas right around us, everywhere. So much common ground, so much potential for cross-pollination and mutual inspiration. Personally that in itself feels like an idea, so – like an unknown butterfly – I will leave it here and let it go. See what happens to it, now and next. The best part of a magic moment is breathe it in, and let it be.
Andrew Fitzgerald from Twitter talks about short short stories & other hybrids coming our way.
Looking forward to miniature films?
@Cinemahead we map scripts because it makes the process of writing less painful and more fun. A story map makes the making-of a script faster, visual, imaginative. Plus, it makes it easy to collaborate.
I ran into this YouTube interview with Alfonso Cuaron, director of “Y Tu Mama Tambien”. Listen to what he has to say about coming up with and directing “Gravity”. He says it was “a script that took three weeks to write”, a story rooted in personal adversities.
A forgotten station emerges from under NYC, a metaphor for the magic power of reveals. We discover what was hidden and the range of our familiar spaces and sources expands. Read more on the blog that posted the story first, the cool travelettes.
This station is with us now, like a secret in a story revealed from the deep. Meaning is best not told, but discovered.
A man wants to jump from a building. A hobo is looking for food in a dumpster below. Who will give way?
A one-act play written by Yair Packer and adapted as a short by Cinemahead with students from the Molkom Folkhögskola in Sweden. The director is Sofia Linn Karlsson.